There's been a lot of worst kept secrets in gaming, but Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle has to be one of the most unusual. When news of the game first leaked, the rumour that French publisher Ubisoft would be developing a Mario game seemed fantastical enough - yet alone that Nintendo would let their star hero share a game with the maniacal Rabbids. Yet, as is sometimes the way with rumours, it turns out the most ridiculous ones are the ones that end up being true.
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As you'd probably expect then, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is a world away from your average Mario game in terms of gameplay, yet with a style and soundtrack that'll have you feeling right at home. A turn-based, grid based strategy game, Mario + Rabbids begins when the dastardly Rabbids discover a device (the SupaMerge) which can blend two items together to create one. Never ones to leave well alone, no sooner have they managed to get their dirty mitts on the device than they've managed to start blending things together like crazy, culminating in them getting sucked into the Mushroom Kingdom and coming face to face with the portly plumber himself. With Rabbid Piranha Plants and other weird mixes running around the place, it's up to you as Mario, along with the selfie-happy Rabbid Peach, and the still-growing-into-his-shirt Rabbid Luigi to try and restore some sort of order, as the Rabbids run wild.
With nothing in the way of platforming to be seen, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is a game that revolves around the strategy battles themselves, as you take it in turns with your evil Rabbidy foes to move around the stage, use special abilities, or fire off your weapons. However, if you were expecting a fairly simple Fire Emblem style battle system here, well, guess again, because Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is a deceptively complex game, with one heck of a learning curve.
As with many strategy games, your positioning is key here, with each character having both a range they can move, and a range they can hit with their weapons (and as almost all characters use guns, the latter is always quite the distance). However, Kingdom Battle makes things all the more complex by adding in both cover (with two different heights), and raised terrain. Travel up a pipe to perch on a cliff edge, and your shots will do more damage against the enemies down below - but you'll also end up leaving yourself at greater risk of being knocked off, if one of the game's beefier enemies decides to take a swipe at you. Meanwhile, position yourself next to one of the game's full height or half height blocks, and you'll find yourself either completely shielded from attacks from the front, or have only a 50% chance of getting hit respectively - at least, until your enemy blows the cover up anyway.
So far, so normal strategy game - but what makes Mario + Rabbids difference is how your team can work together, and the unusual flow of the battles. While you might expect the only way to do damage to enemies is to use an attack, you can actually dish out the punishment here by simply moving - if you play your cards right. Choose to move onto the same space as an enemy, and you'll perform a dash attack; head to a square your team mate's on, and you'll be able to perform a team jump, as they send you flying into the air - choose to then land on the same square as an enemy, and you'll have another chance to dish out the punishment - at least, if you're playing as Mario, the king of the head stomps.
As you can see, even figuring out where to move requires a heck of a lot of thought, as rather than just going from A to B, you'll want to make the most of each turn to do as much damage as possible to as many characters as possible, before ensuring you have enough range left to leg it away to a safe space. And rather than being able to input your move in sections, you'll have to plan out your route in one long, complex spaghetti mess, before pressing A to execute. And as it's not only the position of your characters, but that of the rest of your team that matters, you can see how Mario + Rabbids has the potential to get overwhelming, until you figure out its rather unique battle system.
Another way Mario + Rabbids differs from the norm is that it doesn't care what order your use your moves in. You can use a special power, like a healing spell, then move and dash attack a few enemies on your way past, before finishing them off with a shot from one of your guns. Or, you can begin your turn with an attack, move somewhere else, then switch to another character to do a team jump, before changing to a third to attack. With so much flexibility, it can almost feel like there's too many options at times - especially as you'll need to be on the top of your game to clear the Mario + Rabbids' many stages.
While most levels simply require you to defeat all the enemy Rabbids, others throw in a slightly different objective to make you use your team in a slightly different way - like asking you to reach a certain area within a number of turns (plenty of potential for team jumps to cover that extra distance), or asking you to defeat a certain number of enemies, with the opposing team simply constantly growing until you defeat the number required. Once you've cleared one of the game's four worlds (each of which has 9 levels, the vast majority of which have at least two stages, for a combined total of 72+ stages), you'll unlock both a full co-op mode, where you and a friend can use a single Joy-Con each to take on a separate series of levels that are totally different to the main game, and a set of challenge levels, many of which seem to work more like puzzles than strategy stages.
One of the earliest challenges asks you to escort a hapless toad to the end of the stage, only for the game to block the way with a row of five Smashers. Smashers are one of the toughest enemies you'll come across in the game - huge, burly Rabbids, they'll charge at anyone that shoots them, but will run out of energy pretty quickly. Which is lucky, because if they do reach you and hit you, they'll do a whopping 60 damage (most of your characters only have ~200 health) to you, and any characters around you. With poor Toad having his way entirely blocked by an entire row of the toughest characters in the game, what are you supposed to do? With so much health, you'd never manage to defeat them all in time - and so the only option is to exploit them. Shoot one of the Smashers, and they'll charge forward at you, in turn leaving a perfectly Toad sized hole in their line-up. If you can slip Toad through, he'll be safely through to his target space - although whether he'll make it or not will depend on exactly where you stopped Toad, and how many spaces he has left.
With so much to think about in terms of positioning, enemies, line of sight, and ranges, you'd expect Mario + Rabbids to have a really simple, easy to use interface that shows you all the information you need at the touch of a button. Unfortunately, you'd be disappointed, as one of the biggest let downs about Mario + Rabbids is how clunky its interface is. While you can rotate the camera mid-battle, you can't actually zoom it out, meaning trying to figure out where the enemies are is pretty tricky indeed. While you can switch to a tactical, overhead camera, even this doesn't make getting the information you need as easy as possible - there's no way to overlay the movement range/weapons range of all your enemies at once, so you can see which squares are 100% safe (and with most weapons having a pretty ridiculous range, there's probably only going to be a few of them), while actually using the tactical camera is a lot trickier and more fiddly than you'd hope. It probably doesn't help that, rather than showing you the grid you're playing on, the game instead hides it away, as you instead use the analogue stick to move a cursor around that jumps from square to square, making any sort of precision more challenging than it really should be.
And then there's the game's difficulty. Despite being a Nintendo/Mario game, and despite the appeal the game will undoubtedly have to the more casual/family end of the market, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle doesn't actually have an adjustable difficulty level. And that's not because it's already pretty easy - in fact, this is a game that's really tough to get into, because it either glosses over, or badly explains many of its most crucial components. While buying new weapons is one of the only ways to make your characters stronger - and so better equipped to deal with the later challenges - the game barely even mentions you can do this, much less guides you through how to do it. Instead, a small "Battle HQ" icon will pop up in the bottom corner before each battle - and only by clicking it will you discover you can upgrade your weapons.
Similarly, the battle system itself is more confusing than it really needs to be. Rather than navigating through your potential moves with the d-pad or stick, you'll instead using the left and right shoulder buttons to choose what you want to do, and then press A to execute, in an attempt to cut down on the number of button presses required to do basic things. The problem is, it doesn't make anything any simpler - and the fact that pressing A will automatically fire the weapon rather than select it has caught us out on several occasions. Similarly, it's a bit disappointing that there's no way to undo a move - or even confirm that that's what you really want to do - as it's often all too easy to accidentally select the wrong space. While games like Fire Emblem let you move, and "try out" various different places before committing, all moves are final in Mario + Rabbids - and there's no way out of any mistakes.
What there is is an optional "Easy mode", which you have to trigger before each battle - but even then, it doesn't necessarily make the game more accessible. One of the more unusual things about Mario + Rabbids is that your health doesn't replenish between stages. With most levels consisting of two or more stages, the lack of any end-of-stage health restoration can mean you end up going into the second stage with several very weak characters on your hands (and if you're early in the game, you won't have any healing abilities either). The optional Easy mode goes some way to fix that, as it replenishes your health, and adds an extra 50% on top - although it doesn't seem to make the AI any less brutal, or any easier to beat.
In all, then, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is an impressive, if sometimes flawed take on a very different type of Mario game. Providing a surprisingly complex take on the strategy genre, if anything, the game's best feature is simultaneously its Achilles heel, with battles that sometimes feel almost too complex, particularly in light of the ropey control scheme. That said, with so much creativity, so much freedom to perform killer combos of moves, and plenty of daft Rabbids antics to keep you smiling, there's a lot to like here too - just be prepared for a hefty learning curve.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Switch